Sep 132011

Freedom Party received an e-mail from a graduate student, K, who wrote, in part:

As a scientist-in-training, I applaud your party’s commitment to reason and in particular your suggestions to separate religious practice from schooling. However, I take issue with your party’s stance on pesticides.

There are two problems I have with this. The first is that it’s one thing to let people expose themselves to whatever toxic substance they wish, but nobody has a solid wall around their property that blocks windborn movement of pesticides, or insects (whose good health is important to birds, pollination services, and many small mammals). Consider it like having a neighbour blaring loud music at all hours of the day: their right to play loud music doesn’t override your right to be able to enjoy your property (including having a good night’s sleep).

The second I have is an issue of onus. While you argue that it is irrational to ban something that hasn’t been proven to be unsafe, I would argue the opposite: the onus is on government to regulate items that are not necessary (and really, a green lawn is not particularly necessary to one’s survival, ability to hold down a job, or have a family) that cannot be proven to be safe and impact everyone around them. Think of it like recreational drugs: I think it’s any one person’s (of age) choice to take recreational substances, but I don’t think people have the right to smoke indoors at their workplace where other people are forced to also consume that drug.

Toxicology is an immensely complicated science (and I’m appalled at the difficulties researchers in that field have with obtaining funding). And the tricky part about it is that testing on pregnant women or small children is unethical. But I think just because something hasn’t been proven to be safe, doesn’t mean it is. And we need to balance the benefits that item brings us versus the potential costs–I don’t think a green lawn is really more important than our health.

Anyway, I’m happy to hear what you think!

I replied as follows.

Hi K:

Thanks for writing.

The key sentence in your letter is this one: “But I think just because something hasn’t been proven to be safe, doesn’t mean it is”. I agree with you, but the point is: nothing can be proven to be safe.

Things can only be proven to be harmful. And, until there is evidence that something is harmful, fines and imprisonment are not warranted.

A rational government does not spend any time or money defending against a harm that is not yet detected. There is, in fact, an infinity of such undetected harms. As one example, we do not know that an alien race of aggressors is not heading to earth to destroy us. But it would be irrational for governments to spend time and money setting up defence systems to protect us from space aliens. I’m not mocking your position on pesticides. I’m just trying to demonstrate that the principle upon which your opposition to the pesticides in question is based – the precautionary principle – is not a rational basis for governing (or for living, for that matter). When there is evidence that your neighbour’s use of lawn care products is harming your health, that is when fines or imprisonment might be an acceptable consideration. Not until.

Think of it in terms of scientific research. It is irrational – and unscientific – to pluck an assertion out of thin air (e.g., drinking water and eating Italian sausage causes thoughts of a trip to Tahiti), and then conduct experiments to prove or disprove the assertion. Instead, scientists start with knowledge – things they already know; things for which there is already evidence – and make inferences based upon the things that are already known/proven. So it is with governance.




Paul McKeever, B.Sc.(Hons), M.A., LL.B.
Leader, Freedom Party of Ontario